A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

Dry as Dust!

thelostriver

The Lost River: On the Trails of Saraswati (2010)


Here was a mighty river, as large as the Indus and the Ganges systems, that was expressly reverenced above all other rivers in the Vedas; that shored up the Indus Valley civilization; even dispatched old cities and created new ones as it mercurially shifted its course again and again by connecting and disconnecting with the neighboring Himalayan rivers flowing down to the marginal seas...

... It was amply written about in both literary and archeological tomes, oftentimes with evolutionary and hydrological precision (impressive even by current day standards);
Other well-known rivers continue to flow its path today; traditions tied to the river continue to be followed in the places that are now dry and built upon. Still, the Saraswati River was presumed to have been mythological, because the proof of its existence was muddled up with traditional stories, and all geological evidence was buried beyond the reach of scientists... until today!

Today, satellite imagery confirms that the River Saraswati did exist, and substantiates many of its hydrological properties that were recorded in the old texts; Scientists are now sifting through the old archeological material, religious texts, and folk stories, and separating the errors from the truths, the erratums from the political plugs, the nonsense from the non-science, the non-science from the science... in general, challenging some previously divined truths, and also crediting some previously dismissed views.

This book is a comprehensive compendium of the search for the lost, and the research of the found River Saraswati, and the civilizations that lived along it. It is presented more thoroughly than any other book has done thus far (for laypeople).... Except, its dryness rivals the River Saraswati as it is today! I still waded through the book's slough, imagining the river's once awe-inspiring stature, because it was written conscientiously and with untiring diligence.

I read only recently that, among other things, the purpose of science is also to come up with questions that have never been asked before. This books shares some new questions that archeologists have only just begun to ask, and that says a lot about how far we have come with exploring the River Saraswati, and how many more questions there are to ask, and with some luck, answer. In archeology, guided speculation is an important component of discovery.

I hope the next edition of this book includes many more well-designed maps and colorful images integrated into the text, to help readers unfamiliar with the geography of the area, string along with the author better.

The author shares a lot of detail on the past and present work by archeologists to find and excavate Indus-Saraswati sites. But, I would have liked to see the places alongside the 1500 kms of River Saraswati come to life in a more vivid way, by tying archeology to anthropology, and the civilization to the river. I would have also liked to see more story-telling, and more scientific, political and social contexts of the current archeological investigations.

Because this book is dry, I recommend that the reader read the last two chapters, that is, 'Part 3: Section 11: The Saraswati's Testimony', and the 'Epilogue: Saraswati Turns Invisible', before diving into it whole hog. That way, you kind of jump into the pool knowing how deep the water is. :)

(This book would make a fantastic documentary film).
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The Missing Two Million

followingfish

Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast (2010)


This post shouldn’t take away from Samanth Subramanian’s excellent book on the life in fishing towns around the Indian coast. It’s one of the most enjoyable travelogues I have read in a while. I only hope to add to it.

His is mostly an andocentric account of men who fish, men who drink toddy, and men who’ve adapted their life to the sociocultural history of fishing towns. His women are either in the kitchen cooking him a meal, or absent, with the exception of one or two, who he amusedly observes from a distance! Perhaps, this is because the life of fisherwomen doesn’t lend itself well to a lighthearted travelogue, or because women drink toddy in the privacy of their community. But, to me, this unwittingly makes plain the invisibility of two million working people of one gender, who collaborate with both those at sea and those on the shore! The nature of their work puts them quite literally front and center, in market squares, selling the product that runs the economy of their sector (Several research studies address the critical role of fisherwomen in India’s national food security); And yet, far from receiving maximum prominence, they are sidelined and tuned out. (Except in cinema, as Silk Smitha in a toddy shop, wearing a sexy Kaliakal saree and doing something fishy! Cinema has led me to take it for granted that behind every drunken man in a shaaaap, there is a woman, or more accurately, in front of every man in a shaaaap, there is a woman's behind!).

In the market too, fisherwomen’s trade is subject to the whims of solipsistic male competitors or big merchants (also male). Hired thugs of market contractors have been denying fisherwomen basic infrastructure (not only tables, chairs and iceboxes, or space to dry or salt their fish, but also drinking water and toilets, and prime market spaces). They are denied transport to carry their fish baskets, and are forced to walk miles with heavy loads of their perishable product over their heads from one market to another. There are very few places that provide special buses for fisherwomen. Even in the market, a lot of their stamina goes into escaping physical violence from men. As a result, they not only incur huge losses from poor quality product, but also suffer from ill-health compounded by poor access to health services.

Fishermen, on the other hand, are able to use vehicles to transport their fish (secured in ice boxes). They have also co-opted mobile phones and GPS technologies into their large list of cultural indulgences that only men ‘should’ have access to. Therefore, only men have immediate information on the prices and availability of fish throughout the country's vast coastline. Women are deprived of participation in economic decision-making. They suffer from severe wage disparities, are excluded from many cooperative societies, and are denied equal access to banking and credit facilities (because of both social and economic reasons). There is also very little support for fisherwomen in government policies, because women are mostly engaged in traditional fishing activities. Existing policies focus on increasing fish production and modernizing the fisheries. This also makes women easy prey to loan sharks. In spite of all this, because there are two million fisherwomen, working alongside four million fishermen, they remain a force to reckon with even without the powers.

The contribution of fisherwomen penetrates every operation of fisheries in both micro and macro levels. They perform every role, from that of auctioneers to retail vendors, and serve both producers and consumers. In many parts of the country, women are almost entirely responsible for fish and ornament trade in all landing and marketing centers, and have to compete only with the big commercial fishing trawlers and middlemen! Within their communities, from the time the fish arrives on land, it is mostly the women who manage the post-harvest operations! They work meticulously for long hours in sorting and grading, curing and drying, segregation and stocking, preserving and peeling activities. They work in processing plants as well. They feed and harvest fish, manage hatcheries, construct and maintain ponds, make nets, collect wild seeds, seaweeds, and shellfish. More recently, they have been very involved in conservation efforts, beach work, and running mobile food businesses for the workers at the landing centers and fish markets. Seasonally, they even play a supportive role in active fishing, both in marine and inland sectors, and especially during multi-day fishing. In addition to this, fisherwomen have almost the exclusive responsibility of running the family, and taking care of financial management.

Over the years, fishermen have struggled to compete with the big industry boats, forcing women to buy fish from outside contractors and also compete with powerful outside forces to make their sales. Only those women who buy fish at the auctions and market them at a profit are able to set a value on their labour. The defeated male-folk in the fishing communities have either diversified into other alternate industries such as tourism, or have forcefully taken over the jobs of women in the market. The worst of them have taken to alcohol and gambling. In Kerala, alcohol abuse is linked to 44% of road accidents and 80% of divorces. The fishing community is not immune to alcoholism. If anything, they are often both the cause and the victims of this problem.

Fisherwomen have found innovative ways to stay in the fishery business in spite of the tough market. For instance, in Kerala, women work all night to deliver late-night catch fresh off the boat to homes. In off-seasons when high-value fish are nonexistent, fisherwomen sell sardines and cheap fish to the poultry industry. They run petty shops or sell toddy (not always illicitly) to supplement family income from fishing. The fisherwomen of Vizag have broken into the IT market in big cities, and are selling their employees dry fish snacks for an impressive profit! With the help of non-profits, women are also slowly overcoming their dependence on traditional fisheries and are learning to adopt to new technologies. ICT training is also helping them take calculated risks during their active fishing trips. There are some women entrepreneurs who are also in the forefront of fishing technologies, with some technologies patented and licensed to them! This is a huge step, given the sociocultural barriers that have thus far prevented them from embracing technology. In another example of daring, after the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, several fisherwomen took swimming lessons (offered by Austrian trainers), and willingly wore swim suits with dupatta-coverings (shawls) in defiance of cultural taboos. Fisherwomen also work in conservation planning, such as the preservation of the lives and habitats of Olive Ridley turtles.

However, some of their ventures put their lives at risk. In Bhitarkanika National Park, fisherwomen work as illegal crab catchers, even though they face arrests by forest guards, or attacks by crocodiles because of improper safety practices. Government regulators often enforce conservation regulation without consideration for those who depend entirely on these lands for their living. What is needed in fact are more realistic regulations grounded in both science and social responsibility.

In the tourism industry, many young women are forced into sex work in “Ayurvedic massage parlors”, and even provide escort services to elderly tourists! The industry has also taken away much needed physical space from fisherwomen to perform their post-harvest jobs (and less importantly, for them to mingle privately within their community). Women play a huge role in continuing the cultural customs and norms of their fishing communities. Subramanian shares some detail on how fishing communities have done well to assimilate Christianity into their native Hindu traditions. Even in Hindu fishing communities, while some have retained centuries-old customs, others have created amalgams of two of more traditions. For instance, the Telugu-speaking Hindu community in Odisha have assimilated traditions of both States into their lives and customs. Hinduism too has several mythological stories about fishing communities, like that of Parvati living among the fisherfolk when Shiva banishes her from heaven, or the more famous Satyavati story. For some strange reason, this mythology seems more popular among the non-fishing communities! But, they are worth reflecting on, because the prominent figures in all these stories are women!

(The information for this post is entirely from the first few links on google from searching Fisherwomen + India + “Research Study”, or Fisherwomen + “National Food Security”, or some such.)

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Manga meets Mœbius

walrus_cover

Walrus: Brandon Graham’s All Bum Album. From Tusk Till Drawn. (2013)


When I experience a creative block, I find comfort in the unfinished art, unused ideas and rendered thoughts of my favorite artists and writers. They are just about all the stimulation I can handle. But, more importantly, they assure me that there is virtue in the process, even if it leads to incompleteness. Sketchbooks provide the cables I need to jumpstart my batteries, but with some irony. Here, the movement is usually not forward as much as deliberately circular, like in a Ferris wheel. It is exactly the kind of thoughtless frisson of excitement I seek. It is predictable, palpable and yet thrilling, with a definite end. When the ride stops, I will have unwound and reached a state of relaxed alertness.

Brandon Graham gets me there with his randomness and pop-culture nostalgia. This particular sketchbook of his is a bric-a-brac melting pot with all his tongue-in-cheek playfulness and purposely terrible handwriting, spelling, and some excellent graffiti-calligraphy. Unlike his main works, his sketchbook is more organic; Here, his drawings evolve and fill up space as he goes along, but at the same time, everything he draws is measured and proportioned, and makes sense as a whole. He brings a comical anachronism to his work. He appropriates pieces from reality and incorporates them in his avant-garde retro-futuristic steampunk world, so that his fantasy happens in a commonplace that is bound in a fuzzy space between the immediate-past and the near-future in an alternate world!

He is fixated with pastiche, so half the fun is in the discovery, and the other half is in making sense of that discovery, and feeling smug about cracking all the memes, the allusions, his weird humor full of cheesy wordplay and idiosyncrasies, and finding all the trivialities. You are required to have your eyes peeled at all times. You see close-ups and long distant views of the same things from different perspectives, each revealing something the other does not. I am almost afraid to make eye-contact with any part of a page, or dive in and explore a reef of drawings, because I might get lost in there forever, and will have to force-rip my eyes off of that part of the page to get to another part. And then, I am nervous that I may have moved on prematurely without taking everything that he had to offer!

He has a lot of fun with products, brand names, warning and instruction labels, and advertisements. There are clues to his many literary and artistic influences in the way he structures his story and does his artwork. His bubbles capture the shapes and sounds of everything visible, so that they are all exploding to say something. Text and objects get mixed up and lifeforms become things, and things become lifeforms and everything’s a deconstructed version of something familiar that now serves an unexpected and odd purpose. It is as if the alien city in his book is conjoined with our post-modern urban aesthetic at the hip. The ingenuity and absurdity of the modded contraptions in his book may be difficult to replicate in the near future with our limited technology. But, there are some kickstarter projects there waiting to be created in our cyberpunk future!

Sometimes I haven’t the slightest what some of his sketches are about. Those, I pretend are in a different language (some of them really are), and I decode them in my own way.

Walrus is a great book to pick up ideas on what to read next (as is his blog and his interviews. See here and here). Seeing your favorite authors mentioned in fine print in some corner of a busy page full of drawings, makes them seem like they are all part of the same cool club, and you have somehow become a part of it by recognizing that! He also takes a lot of mainstream comic characters and puts them in his sci-fi world. It’s like finding Spider-Man in Spirited Away. But, you also find yourself in it, with him, and his wife and co-artist, Marian, so that the sketchbook is a fourth-wall-breaking self-reflexive adventure of love-puppies and comic heroes in a Walrus world!

You would wonder how an artist who indulges in sillyness in every bubble moves a plot along. That’s if you haven’t read King City or Multiple Warheads. His serialized comic books detailed from the macro to the very micro will tell you how it’s done!

(Plug: Here's an assorted collection of graphic works I love from India. It is called Obliterary Journal and is one of my favorites.
I devoured the
first volume wholly, entirely and many times. It's funny how it keeps coming back alive, to be devoured again and again. I'm waiting for my parents to visit and bring me the second volume from India. It's so pricey here).
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Magic of Transformation!

TheSnowyOwlBook

The Snowy Owl (2013)


The jury may be out on whether a leopard can change its spots or not, but a Snowy Owl certainly can and will! It used to be believed that the male Snowy is white with little barring and gets whiter with age, and the female has more barring and gets darker with age. But, in reality, Snowies cannot be aged or sexed with certainty. The darkest males and the lightest females are selfsame to the human eye. Also, no two owls are identical, and even throughout an individual’s lifetime, Snowies may choose to increase or decrease their coloration based on the environment and their physiological condition.

The female’s barring serves as a camouflage to help her hide herself and her chicks in the nest, but not in the way that we automatically reason. Animals don’t see colors like humans do. For example, several animals see our black power lines as glowing and flashing bands. We are also not always who they display to or hide from! So their visual appearance is tailored specifically to their needs, keeping in mind their primary ‘ultra-awesome’ predators and prey.

Several of the owl’s prey have UV vision. So while the white plumage of the Snowy may seem to humans as allowing it to camouflage itself against the snow, it is in fact highly UV absorbing, making the owl conspicuous to its prey! To the prey, neither the Snowy Owl’s white plumage nor its dark parts reflect in UV or near UV. In fact its dark parts peak in the near infrared part of the spectrum. So the Snowy Owl appears starkly grey against the white background of the snow. Moreover, Snowies breed in the open tundra, where they can be seen from great distances both in white winter and in colorful summer. They are the largest avian predators on the tundra and can protect themselves from intruders. Having said that, they spend as much time fighting competitors and bullies as it do minding their own business, because every predator in the Arctic is plucky; Pluckiness is a prerequisite to survival in inhospitable terrains (unless you are a lemming, in which case, good luck, and hope the Snowy shines!).

In fact, the males that do all the hunting during the breeding season, reflect significantly more light than the females, so their white color is not an adaptation to camouflage the bird, but is an impairment during hunting! But, this is the sacrifice that the birds make, because pigmentation production costs energy that is better used to minimize energy expenditure during the moult, when all Snowies loose one or two primaries on both wings (the moult intensity is higher for non-breeding Snowies). At no point during the moult do the birds lose their ability to fly.

Because the white of the Snowies is an impediment, it is only the best hunters that can pass on their genes to further generations. In fact, a female might be mighty pleased to know that the male can hunt even without pigmentation!

While their preys have UV vision, Snowy Owls themselves don’t. To Snowies, white is white. On sunny days, they orient themselves toward the sun so that the snow’s albedo enhances their visual display. This is how they broadcast their territorial claims, prey information, and show-off to conspecifics. The lighter Snowies display longer than the darker ones.

Even though Snowies are not UV-sensitive, their vision is one of the most highly developed of any owl, and can track distant objects in all variations of ambient light! Unlike other owls, the Snowy Owls are diurnal (active during the day). Some believe this is the case because they have adapted themselves to the long nights and days in the Arctic! In fact, their multifocal tubular eyes are one of the most ecologically adapted of any bird. The species eyes are roughly 1.5 times more sensitive than those of humans, but with lower limited field view, and increased ability to see in low light levels. Like all owls, the Snowy can turn its head 135 degrees in either direction giving it a total of 270 degrees “field of view”. It can even turn its head almost upside down.

Interestingly enough, the primary reason for the eyes being set at the front of the head is not to give them binocular vision as much as to accommodate large ears. The Snowy Owl is distinct from the other avian predators in taking prey from under the snow. It even prefers to hunt through the snow than over thawed surfaces. Such hunting is clearly done using sound, as much as vision.

And even though their pupils maintain an unchanging diameter of 12mm giving them a small depth of field, they have well-developed rictal bristles around the eyes and beak that help them feel for their newborns, and assess their well-being, or detect the shape and softness of the captured prey.

(This is an uber-long post, because Potapov and Sale's book is fascinating. If you've made it this far, you will enjoy reading the rest of this post. So read on, and do read the book!)

Continue reading...
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Let it Snowl, Let it Snowl, Let it Snowl!

snowy

Magic of the Snowy Owl (2012)


Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.

Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.

Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!

For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!

What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.

The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.

Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!

This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.

The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.

That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!

It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!

Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.

Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.

But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.

I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.

In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.

In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
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Ship-Brecht

shipoftheseus

Ship of Theseus (2012)


The first time we watched the Ship of Theseus, we spent the evening thinking up all the different human organs that can be replaced, and came up with stories for each of them. As the night had us in a stupor, what began with heart and lung transplants, ended with cosmetic dentistry, sex reassignments, nose jobs and hair extensions!

I like this type of storytelling. I call it The Shell approach. It is when you take a philosophical question, thought experiment or a moral lesson, a.k.a. “the shell”, and create stories that best explore them. In The Ship of Theseus, the filmmaker likens the human body to the ship, and whips out three Hip of Theseuses! And because there are as many human body parts as there are ship parts that can be replaced, the creative possibilities of churning out such stories is as limitless as creating new songs from the same melodic modes. Moreover, the filmmaker is careful to keep the allusions partial, so we can explore each story in our own way within the confines of the overarching philosophy.

In the “shell” movies, you spend your time judging the quality or anatomy of the stories, how they are treated artistically, how true they are to “the shell”, and how deeply they explore it. If you were previously familiar with “the shell”, you also have the privilege of comparing how you perceived the same philosophy to that of the filmmaker, and how you may have explored his stories differently.

I think the beginning of a human personhood happens when the gametes fuse to form the zygote. From then on, every biomarker indicates how one has grown as a person, until the time of their death. To some others, the beginning of a human personhood is when one comes out into the physical world and takes in their first breath of air and interacts with the environment.

Regardless of where you mark the beginning of your personhood, you will agree that every moment from that beginning is only about change. There is nothing about us that is constant. We are not the same people we were a second ago. There is always a cell renewing, so much that, in seven years, every cell in our body will have been replaced by new cells, and none of the old remain. We are physically not the same person. And most of this happens in the absence of free-will.

This is the case even with our beliefs. I like to think that our beliefs change entirely in seven (or some other number) year cycles so that everything that was true then is false now, and everything that is true now is false later. And most of what we are is a result of our evolutionary history, our genetic makeup, our innate qualities, our personal experiences that are shaped by our environments, our physical and mental health (especially the interaction between our conscious and unconscious brain), and other deterministic or stochastic factors! But, in spite of the lack of real free-will, the idea of free-will is the prerequisite to living, if not life itself; because living is all about embracing change, and we do so by making choices under the sham of free-will.

I just finished reading Brecht’s essays on theatre and philosophy. The essays in the book are arranged in chronological order of when they were written by him, and span 38 years, starting in 1918 when he was 20 years old. What I love most about this chronological ordering is that I am able to take in how his ideas evolved over time, either to the contrary, or by becoming more developed, but always being consistently thought-provoking. He often ridiculed his own work.

Yesterday, I watched the Ship of Theseus for the second time after reading Anand Gandhi’s interview on Kindle. Coincidentally, it was only a few weeks ago that I watched The Turin Horse, which Gandhi talks about in his interview.

So during this viewing of the Ship of Theseus, where I came fresh off the Brecht fryer and loaded with Gandhi’s interview, everything was refracted through their ideologies. I was under their sway. And any cracks and fault-lines I saw in the film, were a result of the overlap between my way of seeing and their way of showing, and my ability to reflect their stories in my mind’s mirror without distortion; and that is not entirely up to any of us. What Brecht and Gandhi have in common is the ability to present social and character contradictions, and how causation impacts one’s choices and beliefs. They also make everything seem strangely familiar (read: verfremdungseffekt), as if you are looking at the familiar lines on your hands with a magnifying lens, and learning to read them. They both deal with the facticity of the world, and give a lot of weight to verisimilitude. But, they allow you to work out the immanent meanings behind the motives of the characters in their stories. But, the one important way in which Gandhi and Brecht differ (apart from their techniques to achieve their goals) is in how the former leads us to contemplate the world, but the latter leads us to change it.

I wonder which of the two approaches might inspire new philosophies? When is the last time you heard a new philosophical question that was posed only in the 21st century?

For every “shell” way of storytelling, there is a “non-shell” way, where the readers are allowed to engage with the stories without being limited to the confines of any one philosophy. Nothing is ever unformulated in storytelling, but the stories that intend to reflect reality and not change it are conceptually limited to what is, as opposed to what can be. It is when the story’s elements can take any shape or form of the audience’s choosing, that they become more socially active and create many stories and many different ideas out of the original. It is when actors become real people, and audiences become the characters, and the story mimics reality, where reality is mimesis, that some new philosophy may originate.

Sometimes, you may also create a story with a certain idea in mind, but that may not be what the audience takes from it. For instance, Brecht was unhappy that the critics of Mother Courage and Her Children sympathized with Mother Courage. He even made the necessary changes to the play to get his point across, to no avail. More on the Brecht book after I watch the play next week. I plan to be very unsympathetic.

Ship of Theseus is available online for free.
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Fifty Shades of Jane!

prideandprejudice

Pride and Prejudice (1813)



Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.

When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.

At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.

Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.

Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!

What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.

And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!

Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!

When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.

Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.


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Emergent Creativity


Blade Runner: The Aquarelle Edition (2013)


Anders Ramsell animated 12597 remarkably tiny (1.5 x 3 cms) hand-painted aquarelle works of the Blade Runner to create this stunning adaptation. The artistry here is staggering when one considers the difficulty of working with water colors. The aquarelle method uses transparent splashes of paint to create layered artwork that blends realism with abstraction. Because of its fluidity, you have little to no room for error. Once you commit your brush to paper, you go for it like you are aiming for an apple on a man's head. Add to that, Ramsell even manages movement and transformation in his art through the evocative use of color, which is astounding. I wonder how many more paintings he made for this movie that he didn't include in it.

In a way, The Aquarelle Edition serves well as a metaphor for the number of times Blade Runner has been re-cut or readapted. Each version of Blade Runner has either attempted to fine tune the original or offer a fresh take. In a sense, they have all added a new coat of paint to existing furniture. The original movie itself is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Today, there are more copyrighted alternate cuts and illegal fan edits of the movie than one can count.

I love Blade Runner. But, beyond my own fixation with the movie, I find that it affirms my belief that the space for alternate cuts is limitless. Each cut of this movie is as meritorious and popular as the other, and does not dilute the spirit of and a fan’s love for the original. This Aquarelle Edition further validates this opinion.

It is in sync with the fan-fiction tradition that we’ve been following for centuries now. Adaptations are like modern folk tales or epic poetries that survived by way of approximate transference over many generations and mediums. When novels first came out in the eighteenth century, readers who were used to folk tradition, continued to feel entitled to own fictional characters and reimagine them in their own stories.

For instance, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spawned many unauthorized sequels, satires, plays, adaptations, and even merchandise. Even back then, there was discussion on authorship and “original expression”, even though it didn't translate to a formal legal foundation around copyright. The discussion then must have been much like the discussion now on the hellish consequences of regular people owning 3D printers and making knockoffs of products. (I am dying to copy every damnedest designer jewelry or product there is that I have never needed or wanted, just for payback).

Even in the first half of the nineteenth century much of the culture was available for unreserved reuse. Moreover, even protected works (usually paintings, and rarely literature) were protected only against literal copying. It was only as businesses began to make deeper investments in cultural expression that copyright and fair-use were given attention.

The case that laid the foundation for fair-use was Folson v. Marsh in 1841, on whether a new biography of George Washington could use letters that had been collected and published by an earlier biographer. It turned out to be a dialogue between Republican ideology that celebrated uninhibited access to knowledge, and the profit-oriented media industry advocating copyright protection. The end result was the creation of more stringent pro-market laws that went on to shape our attitudes.

Some authors began to show a desire to own fictional characters as legal property, but they were also fickle-minded about ownership. For instance, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a cult classic, it spawned several profitable but unauthorized copycat novels and merchandise. But, she didn’t seem to mind being cheated of licensing fees, because she was earning record-breaking royalties for the original. However, she later sued a German translation of the book in the US. I suspect this is because the sales of the translated book ate into her profits. Germans were the biggest immigrant group in the country, and in fact made up a third of the country at that time. Even though she lost the case, I have a feeling she might have won it if she had chosen to sue the english copycat novels that she let pass instead.

Even in our times, companies that have seen many Fan-edits of their films, have only on some occasions (and quite inconsistently and inexplicably) sued appropriators for causing customer confusion or for expropriating or leveraging their success.

I am both a fair use and anti-piracy advocate. I like the space that encourages both new and inspired material, and celebrates creative talent. I see creativity as a social phenomenon as much as individual expression. This is relevant especially in our times where the internet is full of impromptu creative literary and artistic works done purely for the love of art.

It would be deplorable therefore, if this Aquarelle Edition of the Blade Runner was ever to be sued for copyright infringement. We would be doing a huge disfavor to our culture, and crippling artists who find creativity through inspiration from others’ works.

The privilege of referencing pre-existing works (passive fair-use), or using source material to churn out new products (transformative fair-use) is exercised everyday in news programs, social networks and artworks. Fair-use is simple to apply and most of it is done legally, and oftentimes even when we think we are doing it illegally. There are no fair-use laws as such, and no one needs to authorize your decision. In fact, fair users don’t even have to worry about carrying over the legal encumbrances of the source material, and the nitty-grittys of their copyright and licensing arrangements, as long as they are using the material "fairly". And because fairness is a grey area, you exercise fair-use through self-belief, with some adherence to suggested guidelines, and keep your fingers crossed in the event of a challenge.

The truth is, the discussion around fair-use is as unreadable as a kiss scene in the Twilight Saga. It hasn’t matured one bit to accommodate our new culture. Artists, intellectual property owners and courts routinely take subjective and unpredictable views on what can be deemed fair use and what can’t. Verdicts change from artist to artist, work to work and judge to judge. There are as many fair use cases being ruled in favor of owners as there are being ruled in favor of appropriators, and the logic behind the judgment is as elusive as a unicorn.

Copyright exponents suffer from tunnel-vision with their unswerving adherence to the concept of originality. They are purblind to the wonders of reclaimed narratives and liberated creativity. But, originality is a fictitious concept in art, and now, it is mostly legal fiction. To come up with sensible copyright laws and fair-use guidelines one needs to understand art as being creative and transmissive, but not necessarily original.

In philosophy, Carl Jung says every man’s unconscious has a feminine part called anima (likewise, he calls a female’s male part animus) that transcends his physical psyche. It can be identified as the totality of the unconscious. The anima cannot be separated from the man’s physical form as an independent part! The man may not even be aware of his anima, but he sees it in the woman who he finds fascinating.

I see artistic works much in the same way. Art has many parts, but also an unconscious anima that is born out of the whole, but cannot be precisely delineated from it. It is the space where creativity and originality take shape. When inspired art unintentionally derives from original art, the former is like the man and the latter is like his anima. When inspired art intentionally derives from the original art, then the former is like the man, but the latter is like the woman, where they are attracted to each other because they find their own anima and animus in each other.

Jung says, if the man and woman merge into one identity, then he will adopt the character of her animus and she will adopt the character of his anima. What happens therefore is that it is not the man and woman who play with each other, but their anima and animus!

Any artwork is a puzzle of intimately interconnected parts that can only be understood by referencing the whole; but the whole cannot be pared down to its individual parts. Somewhere in the making of the whole, the parts create a soul. This soul is always original, even if it is created using borrowed material. When you see art in this manner, you see that its purpose is to pollinate future culture. Even when art is redolent of the past, it means for itself to be brand new; and it can only be assessed on how well it has lived up to that intention of being new. A period film, for instance, may intend to be truthful to the past, and in that way, may not be "original", but we still find in it its unique soul, and how it brings the past into the present!

Everyone makes work on the basis of, and in reference and relationship to existing work.  From a legal point of view, proving any creation as originating from nothing, except one’s own innermost being, would require dissecting all the creative processes and stripping the work down to the basics. In doing so, most works that we hold in high esteem, as being the product of some “auteur” would be invalidated; but more importantly, such a striptease would not only be impossible in many cases, but would also undermine the true spirit of creativity.

Moreover, copyright laws’ emphasis on individual authors and works is a distortion of reality. In the music and film world (and even in the book world, and most of the art world), the end product is the work of many people willingly working in tandem. The dissection of a piece to prove originality is both impossible and futile! This is also true for fan-edits. Most of them are done by the digerati within a collaborative network that draws liberally from many sources. The original is oftentimes untraceable.

It is regrettable therefore that there is a sharp divide between those fighting to retain control of their works and those who want to draw on them to create new products.

There is a lot of valuable deliberation on copyright and fair use in both legal and social media circles, but most of the delibration revolves around improving regulatory laws, and coming up with fair use guidelines. But, because we are generating a huge body of fair-use work, it would also be useful to create of a legally viable space, such as a fair-use agora or a Fairuse-Con (like Comic-Con) where "transformative" fair-use videos such as fan-edits, parodies, satires, and other inspired works can be celebrated and encouraged, at least for non-commercial pleasure.

There are more fair-use videos out there than actual copyrighted works, and most of them are susceptible to legal action. This cannot be good. Fair use videos need to breathe freely, because when they do, an Aquarelle Edition of Blade Runner is born! Because there is no such thing as too much Blade Runner!

My previous post on fair use: "anmoku no ryokai"
A NYTimes video: "Allergy to Originality"

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A Different Kind of Freedom

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Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995)


“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

He relinquishes life just as we are beginning to see slavery as a crime. He leaves for a better place, after he helped make one here. Thank you, Nelson Mandela.

I picked up this biography today. The film isn't here yet. It came out last month in some cities.
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Loving Dirge to a Cursed Dreamer

sleepingbeauty

Sleeping Beauty: Gothic Romance (2013)


I still salivate when I recapture Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of the Swan Lake ballet with the male swans. It is a sublime reincarnation of the original, with some humor and whimsicality thrown in for good measure. Even though its story diverges from the original, the music is faster and more authentic than in the traditional ballets. It would have made Tchaikovsky proud.

Bourne is a film buff, and brings his cinematic sensibilities to ballet, which makes it all the more appealing to me. In an interview, he shared that he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, especially in Act 4 of the Swan Lake when the swans turn savage. Hitchcock is a very visual filmmaker. A lot of his storytelling is defined by the way he frames the shots, moves the camera, lights the scene, among other things. So it is interesting to see Bourne bring that sensibility to the staging of a ballet. His characters too take on Hitchcocky characteristics, such as, identity confusion, self-entrapment, paranoia, and some oedipal issues (although he says he was more influenced by Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother’s lover in this aspect); likewise, you see Hitchcockyness in the way he slowly reveals all the aspects of a character over the course of the ballet, and in the way he places the horror in everyday settings.

I have been meaning to read his conversation with Alastair Macaulay about his life, his various works and influences. I wonder if someone with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the arts works off of his subconscious memory, without even intending to draw from them. I might enjoy reading the conversation now, especially since I saw two of his three Tchaikovsky ballets.

Last week, I saw Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet at Kennedy Center, in which he spruced up the Disney version of the story with vampires and other gothic elements; all to Tchaikovsky’s music. I expected it to be either old-school Gothic-like, with elements of the original grotesque Sleeping Beauty story, or with Tim Burton’s eccentric style, since Bourne has adapted Edward Scissorhands to contemporary dance with great success in the past. But, it ended up being somewhat tame. With some imagination, it comes close to being as scarily vampiric as the True Blood or the Twilight series.

Perrault’s original story and most early European versions of Sleeping Beauty* had a lot more gothic elements in them than this ballet. Here is my blend of some of the stories I have read:

After the Princess falls asleep, a strange Prince from the neighboring kingdom climbs a tower to find the Princess (assumed dead in some stories) lying in her coffin wearing seven white bridal skirts and silver bells. He is bewitched by her beauty and returns to the tower everyday. One day he kisses her on her lips, and is overwhelmed with an insuppressible urge to keep kissing, until he finally rapes her. Eventually, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One of her babies mistakes her finger for her breast. He suckles hard on it, and fortuitously pulls out the needle stuck in her finger that put her to sleep. She wakes up and learns that she has been asleep for a hundred years. Just then, the Prince too climbs over the tower and introduces himself as the father to her two children. She instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. Unhappily, the Prince reveals that his stepmother, an Ogress, might not accept the Princess, and may even cause her and her children harm if she finds out about them. So they keep their marriage a secret until the Prince ascends the thrown. The Ogress, then lovingly invites the whole family to her house in the woods, and directs her cook to serve the Princess and the kids as dinner to the Prince. The kind-hearted cook tricks the Ogress and switches the daughter with a lamb, son with a goat, and Princess with hind, and hides the Princess and the kids from the Ogress' sight. But, when the Ogress learns that she has been tricked, she becomes wildly furious and takes matters into her own hands. When the Prince is resting, she orders the cook to summon the Princess, and prepares a fiery pit with noxious creatures to throw the Princess into it. As the Princess is undressed, the silver bells on her skirts ring loudly and alert the Prince. He runs to her rescue. The disgraced Ogress then throws herself into the pit and is fully consumed. The Prince, Princess and the kids live happily ever after.

In Matthew Bourne’s ballet, the Princess falls in love with a gamekeeper, and not a Prince. When she goes to sleep, a fairy turns him into a vampire, so that he can live to see the Princess when she wakes up after 100 years. As the eras change, the Prince goes through enormous transformation. He is now only vestigially a human, and faced with absolute indigence (uncharacteristic of a vampire). He lives in a tent outside the decaying palace overgrown with vines, and woefully waits to wake the Princess up with a kiss. In the mean time, the evil fairy who cursed the Princess to sleep grows lonely and courts the Princess even though she is asleep. He too waits for her to wake up so that he can make her his bride. In the end, the fairy who turned the gamekeeper into a vampire makes quick work of the evil fairy, and the Princess and the gamekeeper live happily every after.

This is the only version of Sleeping Beauty with both male and female fairies, and where time does not stand still, except for Sleeping Beauty. The scenery assumes many transitions, and we are treated to settings of the Late Victorian period, the Edwardian period and modern day; in Russia. But, even as time passes, the story is bound to the historic moment when the curse took effect and put the Princess to sleep. From then on, we deal with the past in the present, and some aspects of the story remain immutable. This is amplified by the fact that time has completely stopped for Sleeping Beauty. Even in the future, in her dreams, she remains in the past.

I love romance. It is the most veritable way to experience something unreal happening to us. In romance, we reach out to a fantasy that wasn’t instinctually real for us until then. We embrace this irrepressible feeling, even though it contradicts our natural urge to shelter ourselves from the unattainable, albeit with eager hesitation. Love always brings with it a sweet pain. And Gothic, with its excesses, elevates this feeling to an epic stature. It turns reality on its head, so that the improbable is probable and the real is unreal. It drops us where opposing qualities mingle and bring forth a pleasing terror.

Over the years, Gothic has evolved into male and female genres (mostly a separate female genre), with the former being associated with horror and the latter with terror.

In the female Gothic, where women write for women, the stories mostly cater to women’s suppressed desires. At the same time, they also play on their everyday fears of rape, abduction and violence; and remind them of their reality of being weaker, helpless and oppressed by men. The plot oscillates between reality and the supernatural, while often siding with one over the other. Many women authors favor “imagined evil” over the supernatural or “realistic evil”; the philosophy being that real terror arises from the voices in one’s own mind.

Even in the earliest gothic stories ever written (and by men), women were mostly depicted as being fearfully trapped, either physically in labyrinths, or mentally, because of their own discrepant impulses.

In male Gothic (as in, general Gothic), pain is mixed with pleasure to form a pleasing horror. The horror is considered pleasurable because of our awareness that the perception of fear is fictional. The stories heighten uncertainty and celebrate the immeasurable. The contemplation of the immeasurability arouses awe, while our inability to fathom it gives rise to displeasure.

I find that Sleeping Beauty is among the rare exceptions that transcends this distinction. Each version of the story fleshes out either the terror or the horror in the story, or both!

Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year that the original Sleeping Beauty ballet premiered in Russia. Interestingly, this time period was also the beginning of the century of Gothic fiction (or Fin de siècle). This was also the period of degeneration, when cynicism and pessimism among the people led to decadence. Gothic was everywhere, in art, in plays and operas, novels and short stories, and even newspapers.

This was the era of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James’ Turn of the Screw. The 1900s was also when cinema was introduced to the larger mainstream, followed by radio and television. People began their visual assault of the next 125 years of cinema with fiction that had strong gothic elements. The malleable and fantastic nature of Gothic added to the magic of moving images. And because Gothic is the genre of Borrowings, which cannot be circumscribed to any one period or style, it helped address many cultural concerns. It blends romanticism with idealism, and individualism with societal decadence, and anything else that you want to add to the mix.

But, the story arc is almost always one of subversion. Set in the gloom of a cursed castle or strange world, the good people are at the mercy of dark powers, whose origin is shrouded. They lurk in the shadows, waiting for a ripe time to threaten the people into physical and mental dissolution using diabolical means. But, in the end, through bravery or deception, the hero vanquishes the evil and good prevails. (Unless it is Grimm’s Tales, in which case, the story may end with the children being eaten).

But, in Michel Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with vampires and a princess hijacked by dreams, it is not the hero who vanquishes evil, but a fairy, because the hero isn’t even fully solid! His abhuman gothic body is as helpless as the Princess languishing in the unconscious world.

In a way, we relate to them, because we have at least in one point in our life experienced the state of being both alive and ‘not’; be it in our mother’s womb, or in our sleep or in some kind of unconsciousness. We have, through the use of hallucinogens or because of illness, experienced feeling out of control, and not feeling fully human. We have waited endlessly, and helplessly, for our loved one to be saved by a miracle. We viscerally remember this as we watch the plights of the Princess and the Gamekeeper.

There is something to say for the fact that these stories have eternal appeal. We keep readapting them with little changes to their basic features. This may be because they provide symbolic mechanisms to help us confront the anomalies and contradictions even in our modern times. And because they are set in haunting distance from us, they provide us with time-honored way to deal with our forbidden desires and deviant thoughts that we divorce ourselves from in real life.

Gothic allows us to transgress moral laws in a richly complex way. There is mental degeneration, spiritual corruption, selfish ambition and carnal desire, but they are all obscured of single meaning by a supernatural subtext. The supernatural allows us to take everything in without being troubled with moral judgment. But, when the story ends on a happy note, we are forced to assimilate the moral of the story; that transgression, even in its darkest form comes with dangers. Terror begins where the rules of social behavior are neglected. This helps restore moral lines. This story would have been entirely different if the king did not neglect to invite the evil witch who granted them a daughter, to her christening ceremony!

The ballet lends itself surprising well to this Gothic retelling of a fairytale. Gothic in many ways opposes the rigidity of classical ballet. Its aesthetic rules insist on unity and symmetry. But here, you see the dancers break rules, and embrace disarray, and play up the grandeur and magnificence of the gothic world.

While writing this post, I read that Bourne used About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers (a book that shares five versions of Sleeping Beauty) and Bruno Bettelheim’s  The Uses of Enchantment (a book that analyses children's fairytales), for his research! I wonder if he decided that the original Sleeping Beauty plots had very little love, and too much macabre weirdness even for a Gothic retelling. Moreover, what would you make of a story where a Prince looks at a sleeping Princess for the very first time, and kisses her, and she wakes up and immediately agrees to marry him? Bourne was not impressed. Is love at first sight, with a comatosed Princess, or with a strange Prince who kisses you in your sleep, your thing? The impossible love between a commoner and royalty in a supernatural world is still far more Gothicy and realistic!

*Here is a list of some popular Sleeping Beauty versions: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, Little Briar Rose and The Evil Mother-in-Law (split into two stories) by the Brothers Grimm, a story in Frayre de Joy e Sor de Placer (A14th century Catalan collection), ‘Troylus and Zellandine’ in the Perceforest, Sole, Luna e Talia in The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, Sleeping Beauty and her Children in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales… and a gazillion other variants, not including adaptations in other non-literary mediums.
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This time, I am not Marveled

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Ms. Marvel (2014)


With all due respect, how many muslim superwomen comics will it take before the idea gets old? Back in September, I wrote about two comic series that have muslim superwomen - the New X-Men and Qahera. Apart from these two, both Marvel and DC comics have had quite a few muslim superheroes in the past. Now, Marvel’s Ms. Marvel will have a muslim teenager playing the lead, and is being touted as the first series with a female protagonist of Islamic background. Wrong.

I have never been one to keep up with the religious beliefs of superheroes. That Superman is Methodist or Nightcrawler is Catholic is extraneous information, which distracts from what makes them truly singular for me. But, if that type of information tickles your fancy, The Comic Book Religion website has a comprehensive compilation of the religious affiliations of superheroes. The “Religious Topics” link on the top left corner of the website with excerpts from various comic books makes for an interesting read.

Superhero comics are hardly celebrated for being secular. A majority of superheroes were created during various national and economic crises, and served as harbingers of hope. They spoke to the people’s collective needs, beliefs and attitudes; gave context to their identity and re-vitalized their pro-nationalist sentiments.

If the rise of Islamic superwomen comics is looked at from this context, it may be speaking to some kind of collective guilt. This may not be a bad thing, if it leads to prosocial behavior. But, when you begin to describe a protagonist mainly by their gender or religion, then you may be running the risk of soft-pedalling their other qualities, which as I pointed out earlier, would be equivalent to describing Superman as a methodist superhero above everything else. That to me is highly irritating. Having said that, I can live with us having many muslim superwomen over having none!
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Binging on Bill

billwatterson

Watterson & Thompson's Exhibition (2014)


The painting above is Bill Watterson's tribute to Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. It is Watterson's first public art in more than 15 years, and was done for Thompson's Parkinson's fundraising project that over hundred cartoonists contributed to.

Watterson is a very selective endorser. He's also a media recluse. So when I read his foreword praising Thompson's Cul de Sac, I was eager to read it just to see what was so special about it that made him not want to contain himself.

"I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I've never been happier to be wrong. Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac has it all--intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.

Cul de Sac's whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it. Four-year-old Alice and her Blisshaven Preschool classmates will ring true to any parent. Doing projects in a cloud of glue and glitter, the little kids manage to reinterpret an otherwise incomprehensible world via their meandering, nonstop chatter. But I think my favorite character is Alice's older brother, Petey. A haunted, controlling milquetoast, he's surely one of the most neurotic kids to appear in comics. These children and their struggles are presented affectionately, and one of the things I like best about Cul de Sac is its natural warmth. Cul de Sac avoids both mawkishness and cynicism and instead finds genuine charm in its loopy appreciation of small events. Very few strips can hit this subtle note."


Apart from the foreword, the only other time I saw him in the news was also when he made the Petey Otterloop portrait!

"I thought it might be funny to paint Petey “seriously,” as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character. At first I intended to do the picture in a dark, Rembrandt-like way to accentuate the “high art” of painting vs the “low art” of comics — the joke being that the comic strip is intelligent and the painting is idiotic — but the picture went through quite a few permutations as it developed.

I found it interesting how the comical distortions in a cartoony drawing become freakish and grotesque when they’re depicted more three-dimensionally. (You sometimes see this in computer rendering and animation.)

Anyway, by the end, I wasn’t sure whether the painting came out funny or creepy, but I hope it’s intriguing somehow. The result surprised me, so I enjoyed it."

So it is undeniable that Watterson is obsessed with Richard Thompson, and it is making him less reclusive.

Both artists will be featured in The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s new exhibition galleries from March 22 to July 6, 2014.

Mental Floss shared an except of a rare and exclusive interview with Bill Watterson on their website. The full interview will be published in the December issue of their magazine.

Also, next month, Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary film about Bill Watterson will release in theaters, and video-on-demand. It is available for pre-order on their website.

While we are on the subject of binging on Bill Watterson, here are
His 2010 interview, (his first since 1989); and
His 1989 speech at The Ohio State University.

He offers a wealth of insight on everything from his work to comic art and comic business.
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Clark "Chanel" Kent, Son of Jor-El!

superman

All-Star Superman (2011)


Superman goes too close to the sun, which oversaturates his cells and cuts his life to a few days. But, in these last days leading up to his death, he is most fascinating. The radiation triples his strength and curiosity, and unleashes his inner Coco Chanel (or E). He develops a fancy for fashion, and goes native with his costume design.

On his first date with Lois Lane on her birthday, he wears a costume inspired by traditional Kryptonian formal wear, and gifts her a costume he wove using indestructible thread and a serum that gives her superpowers for 24 hours. They have a role-playing date that almost turns into a foursome with Samson and Atlas. It will make you wonder what in the Ultrasphinx’s name this sequence is all about. But there’s little sense to roleplaying and pretense to begin with. Logic is highly irrelevant here.

Superman fights Solaris in a white suit that filters out solar radiation. It proves to be ineffective, but more importantly, it tells us that he always fancied wearing a fencing suit and looks spiffy in it.

When he shows Lois to a room full of artifacts, she remarks that she didn’t know he collected modern art; to which he responds, “Actually, I do, but this is the armory”; an armory full of incredibly destructive weapons including some that can hurt him. The point to note here is that Superman collects modern art. The tour of his armory feels like peeking into a museum’s vault and seeing one-of-a-kind objects locked from public view.

Superman’s creative side alone makes the story interesting. But, what makes it the best Superman story ever, is that everyone takes a U-turn in it. Everyone is a runway model strutting down to the end of the ramp, posing, turning back, and walking out.

Clark Kent reveals to Lois Lane that he is Superman. Now, you would think, Lois Lane who likes Clark Kent and loves Superman would be happy to reconcile the mild-mannered human and the strapping superhero as one person, but she instead, goes one hundred percent psycho and deludes herself into thinking Superman is in fact an evil human-harvesting nut-job who wants to impregnate her to create a race of super-children; so she attempts to kill him with Kryptonite. All the years of her adulation for Superman is reduced to distrust in a very peripeteian, existential way. Aristotle calls this Anagnorisis, where a character makes a discovery about someone that leads to love or hate, or in this case Hamartia, or accidental wrongdoing.

Throughout the story, Superman preaches humanity, empathy and forgiveness, that he was taught by his Earth parents. First, he preaches “humanity” to Lex Luthor after he poisons him; then he preaches “humanity” to his Krypton kins, Bar-El and Lilo after they tear down the statue of his parents and make plans to take over Earth; But, when Solaris destroys Sun-eater, his cute pet, Superman flies off the handle! He pummels Solaris, drags him down to Earth, and when he begs for mercy, Superman says “I don’t think I have any left!” and delivers a deadly blow both to Solaris and to “humanity”. U-turn!

Lex Luthor hates Superman because next to his “sickening inhuman perfection” even Lex Luthor’s greatness is overshadowed. Lex Luthor flaunts his “real muscle” to Clark Kent, that he takes pride in as not being is a “gift of alien biochemistry”. But, in the end, he consumes the 24-hour super-power serum that he steals from Superman, and waxes lyrical about being able to see the world as Superman does. “The fundamental forces are yoked by consciousness. Everything’s connected. Everyone.” And then, in that moment of revelation, he agrees with Superman that if saving the world mattered to him, he could have done so years ago.

In the end, when Superman dies and literally becomes one with the Sun, Lex Luthor calls Dr. Quintum and makes a literal confession, “Forgive me, doctor, for I have sinned.” (allusively referring to a previous scene where he ridicules the Padre who blesses him before his execution. “...may the Lord, in his love and mercy, help you” “Get away from me, Padre. You stink of the irrational”), and shares Superman’s genetic code that he reverse-engineered from the super-serum that can replicate him. “But, of course, it will require an ovum from a healthy human woman.” U-turn becomes :O-turn!

By now, I suspect nothing is healthy about a pigeon-feeding Lois Lane, who looks positively non compos mentis, as she assures herself that Superman is fixing the Sun. But, it’s decided that it’s she who will bear the next generation of Superhumans, and that’s that!

There are others in the story who made U-turns as well.

Solaris partners with Lex Luthor, because he wants to eat the Earth’s sun and replace it in the sky. But, he chooses to betray Lex Luthor before Lex Luthor has a chance to betray him. That double-crossing Sun of a Gun!

Robot 7, who loyally serves Superman in his secret pad, malfunctions when Solaris overrides his program, making him steal the super-serum for Luthor. But, in the end Solaris sacrifices himself to atone for betraying Superman.

Bar-El rebuffs Superman for disguising his greatness and “cavorting with the apes as one of their own” and ‘showing no dignity”. But, when both Bar-El and Lilo are saved by Superman, Bar-El says “Kal-El, son of Krypton, I am proud to call you my kin. Our greatness lives on in you.” U!

The whole story is a homily on truth. After all the years that Lois Lane spent trying to prove that Clark Kent was Superman, when he unceremoniously rips his shirt to reveal his blue unitard with the legit S-symbol and all, she plays Evey Hammond to Superman’s V. Why did he lie? Why he did he reveal his truth? And V says “...artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie, but because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” As we find out, the truth about herself was so not all that it’s cracked up to me!

Superman’s truth on the other hand, is that he is Clark Kent. He is Kal-el. He is Superman.

But, as Lex Luthor teases Clark Kent, does the farmbody with brains and integrity, become “a parody of a man, a dullard, a cripple” when Superman is around? Or as Bar-el points out, has Superman always been the son of Jor-el, “a weak man”, “an ineffectual dreamer”, and therefore, has Kal-el also always been Clark Kent!

Lex Luthor who does not believe in truth, says “there are alternatives to truth, justice and all the other things you can't weigh or measure. To every abstract notion [Superman] personifies.” He says there are alternatives to what one can do with powers, other than help. We learn in this story, that pne can make indestructible costumes and collect modern art from all over the universe, and have Sun-eaters as pets!

(I recommend watching the movie and reading the book, for the artwork)
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What Dust thou think?

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New X-Men #133 (2002)


Sooraya Qadir (Dust) is a young Afghan Sunni Muslim mutant, with Sandman-like powers. She is rescued by Wolverine from slave trade in Afghanistan and brought to X-Mansion for training. She wears the abaya and niqab and observes traditional Islamic etiquette.

She is one of those characters who plays a prominent role in New X-Men and Young X-Men series, and saves the day on many occasions; still, most of the conversation around her is about her defending her faith-based choices; One wonders what motivated the writers to think up her character, in an otherwise secular series.

Most of this dialogue on Islamic faith is intriguing for several reasons.

One, because it happens over many volumes. Sooraya to everyone is a muslim before she is a mutant.

Two, because Sooraya's character was conceived right after 9/11.

Three, because it adds a new slant to the dialogue about hypersexualization and objectification of female superheroes in comics.

Four, because, in a world where mutants are misunderstood and discriminated against by humans, this discussion seems a bit captious.

Five, because the comic offers little information about the beliefs of other X-Men characters' from other parts of the world that are specific to their culture!

Six, because her faith is presented as being restrictive, and she as being one-dimensional, which is lamentable given she is an adolescent girl! 

Seven, because it makes me deliberate on the similarity between the typical superhero costume and the hijab in relation to both secret and self-evident identities, visual iconography and symbolism!

The good news is, we now have another perky hijabi superhero in a more real, non-X-men universe! Qahera, an Eqyptian superwoman, fights misogyny, Islamophobia, and offers her own brand of droll humor.  


sooraya

I recommend using the Index to navigate through the Qahera comic strips and FAQs!

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Happy 97th Birthday, MS!

mssubbulakshmi

MS Subbulakshmi - The Queen of Song (2011)

It takes twenty-odd pages of vivid graphics for a delightful acquaintance with MS Subbulakshmi. Within those 20-odd pages, you can also get a glimpse of other musical vidwans, freedom-fighters, artists, writers and spiritual leaders who shaped her life's work for nearly ninety years;  

For me, this graphic biography kindled some derivative nostalgia. MS Subbulakshmi sang a few times in my ancestral house in Madras, including at my maternal grandparents' wedding. To me, this fact alone makes her next to kin. My grandmother's admiration for MS however was more heartfelt. To her, MS's sweet countenance and cultured disposition, her humility when she interacted with people, her devotion as she lost herself to music, and her complete and unreserved generosity inspired reverence. 

During the time of my grandmother's wedding, MS was already married to Thiagaraja Sadasivam, a film producer, writer and freedom fighter. She also gained national recognition after her performance as Narada (a male role) in the film Savitri, and Meera in the film Meera. Her acting career was driven by her desire to raise money for Kalki, a Nationalist tamil magazine founded by her husband and Kalki Krishnamurthy.

To me, Kalki was the wellspring of some of the greatest historical novels ever written: Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Partiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan. The first two epics were set in 7th century AD when the Pallava dynasty (Later Pallavas) was ruling southern India; and the last one was set in the 10th century AD when the Chola Dynasty (Later Cholas) was ruling southern India. All three epics are about romance and statecraft and beautifully bind real historical events with fiction.

Kalki was an offshoot of some pro-Tamil movements that MS too was a part of. For instance, the Tamil Isai Movement started by Annamalai Chettiar in the 1940s popularized tamil songs in concerts; most of the songs being sung in concerts up until then were in telugu and sanskrit. No other movement did better to delineate the link between language and class than the Tamil Isai movement; especially because classical music (Karnataka sangita), which was championed by the Music Academy, was brahmin-dominated; whereas Tamil Isai Sangam was advanced mostly by non-Brahmins (even though Kalki himself was a brahmin). Kalki fuelled the movement with its persuasive rhetoric, and MS lent her support to this cause by singing at the Tamil Isai Sangam, and later encouraging The Music Academy to acquiesce to tamil songs. 

For all that, MS wasn't a tamil purist. She sang in many Indian languages (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, and Sanskrit) and was particular about pronunciation and spent time understanding the meaning (bhava) behind the songs. She was also the first to introduce Carnatic music to the West and performed in many Indian languages and Indian classical music genres all over the world!

She was a devoted wife, who unquestioningly accepted her husband's reformist convictions and his desire to challenge social taboos; this also meant donating all her life's earnings to charitable causes. In the end, they were badly off; even though they were lauded for their altruism.

The illustrated biography recounts all this and more. The anecdotes in the book, of MS's childhood are particularly appealing because they call to mind a way of life that saw its end in our time. No nadaswaram player will walk up to our doorstep and play us a tune, and no unknown hermit will volunteer to teach us the Grantha script everyday; even though we may have experienced remnants of this culture up until a few years ago.

But, what the book doesn't touch upon is how MS challenged the social fabric of Carnatic music. She was part of the female trinity of Carnatic music; the other two being DK Pattamal and ML Vasantakumari, who were the first vocal singers to perform in concerts. Until then, women (mostly devadasis) were allowed to perform only in private gatherings. Women were also restricted to singing Padams and Javallis; whereas, Pallavi singing that allows for improvisation was restricted to men. The trinity were the first to have male accompanists perform with them; In fact, women were rarely even allowed to attend concerts. The carnatic music world was brahminical and male-dominated, and MS, whose mother was a devadasi, fought a war against many ideals. In the end, she even led the unjavarti processions during Thyagaraja Aradana celebrations, which were restricted to men; and eventually only allowed in a separate women-only aradhana conducted at the rear-end of the samadhi. So, when you read the book, also think of her and an incidental feminist who ushered in a new era in India, where music is free for all and knows no boundaries! :)

This biography is part of the Pictures of Melody series by Lakshmi Devnath, and features many other great Carnatic musicians! I recommend all of them.

google-doodle-MSSubbulakshmi

Story behind the Hari Tum Haro song mentioned in the book.

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TOI Rating Patriotism (TRP)

midnightschildren

Midnight's Children (1980)

Happy Independence Day, India! In 2008, Times of India reported a decrease in patriotic films on television because of its dwindling audience over the years. This year, the same newspaper writes that patriotic films are popular, and are a big draw among "die-hard patriotic cinema-lovers". If one is to accept both articles as being accurate (based on TRPs), then the last five years have seen an upsurge of nationalistic sentiment. However, there aren't any new patriotic films that were made over this time. Are filmmakers not into popularity metrics; or did Times of India suddenly get an in with some hush-hush patriotic circles? Where were these "die-hard patriotic cinema-lovers" five years ago?

In the spirit of Independence Day, I am reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and will be watching Deepa Mehta's adaptation of the book.
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Avant Guard!

supermanatmet

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008)


There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.

A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.

Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).

All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!

I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.

And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”

Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!

Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
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It's not you, It's me!

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Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories (2006)


The backcover says the book is "A vibrant collection of stories from one of Karnataka's finest storytellers". It is as vibrant as a drowned whelp. It is intentionally and incontrovertibly a dismal book of stories about women who find themselves in unhappy situations. They portray real societal hypocrisies, but are ultimately unedifying, except for the main story Gulabi Talkies, which evokes nostalgia for a simpler time when cinema was a relative novelty that brought with it new hopes and aspirations [until even in that, the author decided to take a flourishing soul that she nurtured till the very end and squeeze it dry]. 

To be fair to the author, I found myself feeling equally anesthetized, or at least wanting to be, when I read a translated collection of short stories by some telugu authors a few years ago. The formula seems to be to cull some classic women's issues and spin stories around them without trying too hard, except to maybe think up some trenchant statements and choice phrases that will make you squeamish; To put it in their language: in the end, you are left wondering what in the world got you so wet, shaken and quickly dissatisfied.

I still recommend the book because it's a celebrated author, and her works are highly praised by most, so the underlying messages must just be lying deep beyond my reach. In my defense, in every story the author insinuates that the character is thinking deep thoughts, without ever revealing what those thoughts are. This aggravates me as much as when someone says "It's complicated" when they want to brush you off! Two because, if you haven't read this brand of short stories, then you haven't not understood one set of women's writings in the Indian context! Three because, the book did a good job of culling all possible sad stories, so you can use them as reference to reflect on similar experiences in your life. Your truth is sure to be stranger than this fiction. Four because, misery loves company. Tell me you suffered this book too. Five because, I am about to watch the movie adaptation of Gulabi Talkies. Make of that what you will.

Can you tell from reading a book by an anonymous writer if its author is male or female? I would like to believe I can't, only because when I read a book, I want to leave behind our world and get into the world in the book. The author needs to be indeterminate and invisible (except in the case of meta-books, where authors consciously choose to draw attention to themselves). But some suggest that short stories may be a more suitable form for women. I find that sexist. The only way I could read this book was to test my theory out, and imagine that it was written by a man, and see if the conversations would still read the same way. I am happy to report that they left me feeling equally squeamish.
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Long Live Pots, and Roger Ebert!

thepot

The Pot and How to Use it (2010)


Today saw the demise of a great intellect; a man with an insatiable appetite for experiencing life and informing ours, and he did so with sass and class.

While I often find myself thumbing through his film books, poring over his blogs and lists, and the articles he shared on twitter, the most recent book of his that I read was curiously about 'the mystery and romance of the rice cooker'. You might think cooking and Ebert are ill-matched, but it is the only cookbook I have read cover to cover in one sitting; and his rice cooker has gone with him to the Sundance Film Festival and has therefore been legitimized and hallowed by the film world.

I grew up in South India where rice is the predominant staple food, and it continues to be a major part of my diet even today; and when it is not, I am either dreaming about rice and salivating copiously or reading about it; only now, when I cook rice, it is sometimes infused with herbs and vegetables I didn't even know existed. My rice cooker also cooks other grains and pastas, including oatmeal, and my food is served with the kind of wisecracks and anecdotes that he collated in his lifetime. But, when I bought the book, I never intended to try Ebert's recipes as much as enjoy the book for his sake; the scrumptious recipes and health insights only came as a surprise bonus. I picked up Anna Thomas' Vegetarian Epicure, only because he called it "the most influential cookbook in the history of modern vegetarian cooking", and added Marie Sharp's Exotic Sauce and House of Tsang sauces to my condiment arsenal, only because he swore by them, and I do now.

The most intriguing thing about the book for me is the way in which he incorporated the readers' comments from one of his blogpost about rice cookers as a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book, and they flow seamlessly with the rest of the content, as if they were in response to the content in the earlier chapters of the book. This is the only meta-cookbook of this sort that I know; and is telling of Ebert's openness to experience, who after having lost the ability to eat due to cancer was only able to enjoy food vicariously or by way of nostalgia.

The rice cooker allows me to sit at a table and leaf through a book while it does all the cooking. Coincidentally, it is this luxury of leisure that cookers make possible that Ebert too enjoyed about it, and it is this type of relatability in small moments that he brought to his writing that made him appealing. While we both grew up in different worlds and eras, we seemed to have so much in common, and it didn't all boil down to rice, movies and living in our heads. Somewhere, our thoughts manifested our reality in some form or the other.

He wrote this cookbook after he stopped eating ("when it became an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion"), he tweeted after he stopped talking; I know he will live on after he has stopped breathing… for me, this is every time I watch a movie, or use the rice cooker, or do a thumbs up or down.

I had been meaning to read his autobiography for a while now. I'll pick it up today, although I know it won't be the same reading it after he has laid down his life as if I had read it before. The book is called Life Itself: A Memoir.

New York Times: Ebert Was a Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by Caring
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State-of-the-art: Solid, Liquid & Gas.

fakingit

Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. 1840-1990 (2013)


I walked through this exhibition open-mouthed, with my jaw hanging halfway down my chest. Every kind of photo manipulation being done in Photoshop today was already done in the 1840s within 20 years of the first photograph being taken! But, what was especially astounding was how these tricks were achieved and why they were done.

The how part consists of many different demanding processes having to do with clunky equipment, lots of chemicals, sunlight, and ingenuity.

The why part has to do with elevating photography to an art form, manipulating truth for political gains, bringing color to black and white, adding and subtracting people, and more happily for humor and gags. Any which way you see it, photography was the art of whipping up fictional hysteria, sometimes with the intention of making us believe they were real. Of course, there were also naturalists trying to document reality as truthfully as possible, but this wasn’t their exhibition, and even they inadvertently succumbed to the fictional aspect of photography, both due to the limitations of the technology at that time, and their own prejudices on how the medium should be used.

I would encourage you to visit the exhibition if it ever comes to your part of the world, and read the book, which is a lot sooner and surer to arrive at your doorstep than the exhibition!

The picture above is called "Two ways of Life", and was rendered in 1857 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. "Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print." The Met Museum website showcases all the works in the exhibition, which is over 200 photographs.

NPR has a wonderful article about the exhibition with slideshows. Don't miss the slideshow in the bottom with Joseph Stalin and his mysteriously disappearing inner circle.

Here’s Getty Museum's video of how daguerreotypes were made, just for context on how difficult it was to take photographs at one point. The exhibition showed manipulated daguerreotypes, such as images within images, and other special effects.

And for contrast, here’s Getty Museum's video about a naturalist called PH Emerson, who wanted photography to capture the English countryside as realistically as possible.




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"He Changed my DNA"

kumare

Kumaré (2011)


Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.

This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out. 

I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.

On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.

If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.

This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end! 

This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.
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Risks of Radical Innovation


Koffee With Karan - Shabana Azmi & Shobhaa Dé (2004)


Between minute 10 and 18, Shabana Azmi and Shobhaa De have a difference of opinion on the film business. Shabana Azmi is optimistic about audience's interest in alternative cinema, and implores the government and established filmmakers to encourage small independent filmmakers and foster creativity; whereas Shobhaa De is more businesslike in her views, and insists that the film business will give the audience what they want, which is mediocrity.

This argument reminds me of The Innovator's Solution, in which Clay Christensen says that big companies are apprehensive about investing in the ideas of new upstart companies because it entails daunting risks. So they choose to invest in their own 'sustaining innovations' that make incremental changes to existing products over disruptive innovations that introduce entirely new products that cater to a new market at the expense of their existing market.

And while big companies focus on bettering the performance of existing products for their loyal customers, new upstart companies target the low-end customers who want a niche product. Once they have achieved success in that specialised, but profitable corner of the market, they move up the chain and not only compete with the big companies for a share of their market, but also start to contend with the same risks of radical innovation that big companies face; This leaves even-newer companies to explore the next innovation space that the big guys don't want to play in. To a small company, stomaching the risk of failure comes with a chance at bountiful rewards, but to a big company, the risk-to-reward ratio is too high. However, this has also been the downfall of many big companies, who went out of business after they reached a particular scale because they didn't want to make big bets, and only wanted to consider incremental innovation until a point where the audience was unable to use or absorb the improvements.

In this analogy, the big company or filmmaker may be Yash Chopra or Karan Johar, making the highest grossing films in the country, many that are formulaic and leveraging on the success of the earlier films; (take for instance their romantic blockbusters or their film series like Dhoom); and the small company or filmmaker may be Shyam Benegal or Anurag Kashyap who cornered a niche and created successful disruptive business; (take for instance Kashyap's New Wave films catering to a niche audience… He initially began as a Director, and as he gained more clout, he went on to become a Producer).

If one were to take Shabana Azmi's suggestion of having big filmmakers invest in small filmmakers without attracting the risk of losing their reputation if the investment goes sour, then the big filmmakers would have to invest anonymously or somewhat covertly. One such example is Ekta Kapoor, who maintained two personalities, one as a TV serial maven making "K" serials, and another as an off-beat film producer, the latter personality being more understated. This is similar to big companies reaching new markets by creating new brands or subsidiary companies, while at the same time serving as 'disruptive growth engines' that also act as incubators for other growing businesses; like Coca-cola Company's Glaceau that makes Smart Water, or Amazon's subsidiaries like Zappo, Woot, iMDb, Lovefilms and products like Kindle and Audible.

In the end, it all boils down to big companies' willingness to fail, with an eye on success in the long term!

ps: I don't condone Shabana Azmi's comment about Americans being ignorant.

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Two Women's Unfettered Imagination

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The Nature Notes (1905) & The Country Diary (1906) of An Edwardian Lady


Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.

But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!

In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.

It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.

But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!

Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.

And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with  "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.

There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!



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Running the Heinrich-athon

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Ornithoblogical (2009-Present)


Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.

A Year in the Maine Woods

The Trees in my Forest

Summer World: A Season of Bounty

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

The Geese of Beaver Bog

Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!

In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.
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I am in!

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South Asian Women Writers Challenge (2013)


I am participating in the South Asian Women Writers Challenge, and will be reading six South Indian books by women writers and reviewing at least three by the end of this year.

Feel free to recommend both fiction and non-fiction books from the red area; and also participate in the challenge.
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Thereby hangs the tale

palacewalk

Palace Walk (1990)


I have been slowly ploughing through the Cairo Trilogy by Naquib Mahfouz, relishing it like a succulent meal. In spite of that, having read the first book, I am now gravitating towards Cairo, a [completely different] graphic novel by G. Willow Wilson, instead of the second book in the trilogy.

I haven't fully moved past my childhood picture-book days. I need the text versus illustration ratio to tip towards illustration to experience full satisfaction. Which is why, I hope every book is adapted into a movie, and is written in a suitable font to begin with! No amount of evocative writing will fill the visual void that my imagination relies heavily on to transport me to its world. I see this as a disability that I manage to overcome with acceptance and mind games. I imagine that I am the filmmaker being given the task of adapting the book into a movie, and then the void becomes my canvas.

Now, about the book.

Palace Walk is richly descriptive, and paints a visual picture of the everyday life of a family living in an alleyway by a major souk in Cairo. It deals with the Cairene's simultaneous struggle with and respect for the old established order, at a time marked by profound transformation, during the days leading to the Revolution. This is done sensitively, aided by Mahfouz's own nostalgia for the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Cairo, and its fragile social fabric!

There are two stories being told through the plot: One, presents a portrait of people that details the characters' lives and their personal aspirations, and alludes to the larger story behind the perceptively drawn picture; Another, presents a portrait of time that focusses on the story of the rising tide of nationalism, and the push and pull of a patriarchal society, and how it contributes to the incongruous life of one family!

Mahfouz combines the two stories with some fluidity, so even when the characters are preoccupied with their own lives, you can see each of them rising from their personal depths and representing an ideological point of view shared by many Cairenes. You can see inside their minds and grasp the motivation behind their behaviors, and understand both the shared values and the gulf of understanding between the characters.

The revolution has just begun and I am taking a break now to savor a real-life-meets-mythology take on Cairo in sequential art form.

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Reality, meet Fiction.

onceuponatime

Once Upon a Time (2011 - Present)


When I was ten, my aunt's friend scotched my illusory perception of fairy tales. From then on, Little Red Riding Hood was a 17th century French peasant's tale about a prepubescent girl who is led astray by a ravishing male [wolf]; he subsequently violates her in her grandmother's house; and just as he is about to kill her, her father comes to her rescue! All fairy tales seemed to be about confronting one's fears and coming out bruised, but happily not broken.

Hidden in these stories are symbols and significations pointing to some dark truth that can have many meanings when placed in different contexts. I used to find The Little Red Riding Hood most relatable to our time, and so I found the older and darker interpretation of her story more gut-wrenching, and wished then that my emotions translated more literally to the huntsman wrenching the wolf's gut. Instead he put two stones in the wolf's belly as punishment for his sexual transgression! It so happens that this ending is more in line with my current stand against the death penalty, so I am fine with it now!
 
Later, I read The Great Cat Massacre, in which this story was validated, and early versions of other familiar fairy tales were retold. For instance, in the original Sleeping Beauty, Sleeping Beauty is molested by a married Prince Charming and bears him several children, while she is still sleeping! The infants break the spell by biting her breasts during nursing. What a horror that must have been to wake up to! It tells me that the curse was meant to begin after she was awoken! In one version of Cinderella, Cinderella becomes a domestic servant to prevent her widowed-father from forcing her to marry him.

A lot of these stories go back centuries before their supposed authors were even born. Charles Perrault's 17th century version of Sleeping Beauty that we are familiar with, also appeared in an Arthurian romance in the 14th century! Moreover, the same stories were retold all over Europe through centuries, with little to no variations, making it hard to trace their origins.

Fairy tales were mostly written keeping adults in mind, and were never regarded as being suitable for children. Some had to be rewritten several times before they were considered 'debatably' tolerable as "household" tales, and were imparted to children with some horrific details to make moral lessons stick in their minds!

Over time, we have been seeing the same stories taking on new dimensions and becoming representatives of their times! The Disney versions may be indicative of our times being comparatively happier (or censored more heavily, depending on your optimism about our times)! But that too is changing. There are some dark interpretations that are being made for adults!  

Once Upon a Time is a fairly adult series that builds on fairy tales and other fantasy stories from pop-culture, by splitting the universe into several extra dimensions, and having characters travel back and forth between them using magic! It's String Theory reinterpreted as: All things being equal, all fictional stories happening across time and space can be strung together, and re-imagined as one single epic!

Suddenly the retellings of 18th century Germany's Grimm Brothers, 17th century France's Charles Perault, 19th century England's Lewis Caroll, 20th century Scotland's JM Barrie, 19th century Italy's Carlo Collodi, and many more authors from different eras and places magically come together in a fictional but contemporary American town, reminiscent of the Lost world, by way of a curse!

I love that fairy tales have been slowly evolving over time and space and taking on new dimensions. I also love that through Once Upon a Time, their characters are travelling many physical dimensions and interacting with each other in one place. The series is my most favorite adaptation of old fairy tales in this era, followed by James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. 

There is also another TV series called Grimm that I followed for sometime, but didn't enjoy as much. It's a cop drama where the cop (a Grimm, with secret powers), goes after some evil characters from Grimm's fairytales (called Wessen) who inhabit the human world disguised as humans! It's a great concept, but followed the same Dr. Who type formula, with one bad character being finished off by the end of the episode.

I watched a French crime thriller called Nobody Else But You (Poupoupidou), in which a crime novelist solves a murder of a young woman who shared several commonalities in both appearance and relationships with Marilyn Monroe, and believed she was a reincarnation of Monroe and predicted her own death! I watched it around the same time that I watched a few versions of Snow White - Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, and read an account of a German scholar who believed that the story of Snow White might in fact be based on the life of German noble girl in Lohr am Main in 1725. There is also a "Talking Mirror” that is now housed in Spessart Museum in the Lohr Castle, to validate this account!

The line between reality and fiction has always been a blur, but perhaps it is the blur that we inhabit, and true reality and absolute fiction that we seek from the blur! Or maybe, we are all Grimms meant to keep balance between the real and imaginary creatures we live alongside or create.




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Who Plays Richard Parker?

lifeofpi

Life of Pi (2012)


I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edward Allan Poe around when I watched the Life of Pi (although I had read the book many years ago), and couldn't help but contemplate the two in tandem. There were many apparent parallels in the two novels, right from the names of the characters and the overarching themes of solitary survival at sea and cannibalism, but they also had their own distinctive qualities, so much that even when the story-lines crisscrossed, the similarities only seemed superficial! The Life of Pi was a tamer and more openly spiritual cousin of the Pym of Nantucket.

In almost every great story about sea voyages gone awry, there is truth mixed with the unspeakable; where humans confront their savage instincts, and one Richard Parker becomes victim to the Custom of the Sea. This is true for both fiction and real life. In real life, back when there were no proper telecommunication facilities, cannibalism used to be accepted as an execrable, but necessary evil, unavoidable in certain circumstances, such as survival at sea. In The Mignonette case, a century ago, three lost crew members chose to eat an unconscious fourth (a Richard Parker), and the only objection raised by the law was that it was done so without drawing straws!

But, in all shipwreck stories, there is also the aspect of nature revealing itself in all its splendor, and making itself look dream-like! It brought the element of magic in magic-realism, as was best showcased in The Life of Pi. When the story was uninterrupted by human presence (besides Pi, who stands witness to this phenomenon), the world seemed ineffably vast and harmonious! There was chaos, there was stillness, and there was a perceivable rhythm to both. The twinkling of the stars was echoed in the bioluminescence of the jellyfish; the reflective water faithfully mirrored the golden sky above; the chaos of waves complimented the wrath of the storm, the fusillade of flying fish paralleled the scurrying of meerkats up the trees; the synchronous movements of critters and beasties matched the intricate anatomy of the woods, which in turn contrasted the tiny boat in a boundless sheet of uninterrupted velvet blue. The roar of the tiger and his continued stare into the abyss complemented the lyrical words of Pi and his nonstop monologues!

How much of it was real, and how much of it was made up, we will never know; just as we will never know which of the two stories was true, and if anything like the floating island really exists in our world! What we do know is what we wanted our unexplored world to look like, and it was delivered!

The human aspect of The Life of Pi came in the form of Pi's soliloquies, which at times left me mentally adrift, and trying to find ground! In being besotted with nature, I may have been distracted from the wonder of God. In the end, I was more happy that Pi found his gastronomical path than his spiritual one!

But just as one man and one tiger learnt to share space on a tiny boat in a fictional story, in real life, we have been witnessing a different result to the battle between tigers and humans sharing the same space. For sometime now, the score has been tipping heavily on the human side, so much that last week, 200 men savagely attacked a "released" tiger and ceremoniously killed it!

Almost all reserves in India have tiger populations in two-digits, and tigers have lost 93% of their range, and yet they seem to come in the way of human settlements. Environmentalists have been working hard to reverse this change and promote nonviolence. Tigers too have been somewhat proactive in changing their ways to thrive in this manscape. For instance, the ones in Sundarbans rarely attack the villages encircling the reserves. In order to provide for themselves in the wild, they have learnt to swim, and sometimes tread deep water for up to three miles to catch their prey. They have also adapted to eating honey from beehives. In other parts, tigers have adopted a nocturnal life and prowl on forest paths only at night when we are asleep. It seems they have done everything short of growing wings. Despite that, on occasion, particularly when food is scare, they polish off local livestock, and rattle our cage!

One begins to wonder if the solution to the riddle about transporting the Tiger, Goat and Grass to the other side holds water in real life. Secretly perhaps, our most desirable solution is to let the goat eat the grass, then feed the goat to the tiger, then eat the tiger, and deliver ourselves in fine fettle to the other side!

Cannibalism hasn't come that easily to tigers as it has to us! They do well playing Richard Parker. I know one tiger that did.

More on Tigers: http://worldwildlife.org/species/tiger
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Unseen Dimensions

scottpilgrim

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)


I wonder what Henri Bergson would have to say about today’s cinema. He had nothing to do with cinema, but even as early as 1906 he anticipated it would influence new ways of thinking about movement. Do you think he could have imagined the likes of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when he said that?

I am reminded of a book that I once read on quantum physics called Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of The Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. In that, the author Lisa Randall who is a theoretical physicist speculates that there may be 10 or 11 space-time dimensions in the universe (and for all you know fewer or many more)… and that we experience only four because we are not physiologically designed to see those other dimensions.

Should she be right about there being many more dimensions in the world – and should parallel universes, warped geometry and three-dimensional sinkholes be real – it could change everything! Emboldened by our knowledge, we may even be able to impinge on these hidden dimensions and find ways to experience them. In some ways films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World attempt (even if unintentionally) to do that! But if it was that easy to imagine and simulate a different world, wouldn’t it be that much easier to also realize it?

In fact, what we are doing in quantum physics now is seeing our world the same way Bergson saw cinema in 1906. We are seeing it with wonder, and even wondering hopelessly about that which cannot be imagined, and then wondering more about what it means that we cannot imagine what we wondered about.

But, unlike my kind of loosey-goosey wondering, Bergson’s speculation about cinema turned out to be more than accurate. In fact more so than I think he could have ever imagined. Moreover, if you think of his speculation in conjunction with his other philosophies on reality and intuition, and creativity and laughter… you have what I think is the perfect fodder for a discussion on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World… or any other nested-fantasy film for that matter.

The film has a lot of merit and is brilliant beyond words can express in just the way the plot unfolded and was visually presented. But, leaving that aside, if you consider the random chain of thoughts it triggers in our mind about the nature of reality alone, it still is a treasure trove of delightful reveries.

The other more obvious conversation that the film provokes is about Fantasy. Now that Fantasy has emerged into its own genre of film, one has to wonder if the word has lost its meaning or at least changed to mean something else. Is Fantasy fantasy if we know what to expect? Is fantasy not the expression of our unconscious that reflects subliminal realms of our minds that have been suppressed or repressed? Can we translate the form, structure and rationality of the world of dreams to the world of reality? And can we fantasize with films, the way we can fantasize in our minds?

Lacan would have us believe that fantasy is our conscious articulation of desire through images and stories… but, I wonder if by giving it a standard structure, we are interfering with the process of narrating our unconscious desire the way it wants to be narrated…

He addresses this dilemma by taking into account the many layers of fantasies between filmmakers and spectators that inadvertently cross-feed each other. For instance… the filmmaker perceives fantasy in a certain way, which may be different from the fantasy he creates for the spectators, which each spectator then perceives and fantasizes in their own way, and feed back to the filmmaker, who then re-interprets the spectators’ fantasies only to find that they may be entirely different from his own… but here too the filmmaker’s interpretation of the spectators’ fantasies may be maligned by his own subconscious desires, so he may never really know what the spectators had imagined… just as the spectators may never know what the filmmaker imagined…

To add to this, imagining is an ongoing process that we have little control over, and happens in our mind alongside other activities (including getting lost in the film and become one with it). Our imagination too changes all the time, which means we may all be fantasizing about the same thing differently at different points in time, and even have several fantasies about the same thing running simultaneously in our minds at once, making it impossible for us to articulate them! Moreover, we tend put ourselves in the minds of several people (the filmmaker, the protagonists, the spectators and so on) while also viewing the film as observers or protagonists, making it impossible to know how our various observations overlap or communicate with each other…

This means each spectator has millions of fantasies and there are millions of spectators for each film, making the number of fantasies as numerous as the number of atoms in the air, which again points back to the analogy about quantum physics.

And still everyone is together in this orgy of fantasies on account of a common pursuit, which is the viewing of the film and exploring our subconscious desires through it (and trying to explore the desires of others). We each speak to our own innermost fantasies and feed it to others who interpret it to satisfy their fantasies and so on and so forth. We can’t tell how our fantasies are triggered and how they translate to others desires, since it all happens within the unconscious mind.

That’s where I began and ended with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. I saw myself as the voyeur of the story unfolding in front of me, as well as the voyeur of my own fantasy. And what a colorful and spectacular world it was, and how much there was in it to see and be entertained by.

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